How to Change Oneself

It’s been one month since the new year, and given the sheer number of people who abandon their resolutions, I think it’s a good time for a “resolution check-up”.

It’s good to have an introspective reminder that we should not let our goals slip by us easily, no matter how busy life gets before and after the new year. Are you where you want to be?

To help with your resolutions I want to share a list I’ve had since college titled How to Change Oneself. It contains a number of methods to help create and change behaviors, originally given to me in college by one of my professors[1], for nurturing traits and motivations that one wishes to develop. I hope they help you as much as they’ve helped me.

How to Change Oneself

Role Play (Fake It)

After identifying the behaviors you want to have, act as if you had them. Act the way that people with these habits tend to act.

It has been found, somewhat paradoxically, that inner psychological states and traits are best nurtured by outside behavior, not (solely) by internal commitment to develop them.

I hesitate to use the phrase “fake it” but it’s very common in this vein of advice (“Fake it ‘till you make it”). This is off-putting to some people, who deride the advice as engendering a counterfeit or phony personality. It’s important to remember you aren’t acting a certain way to be someone you can’t be. You’re acting a certain way to be the person you want to be in the near future.

You’re role-playing a future you, and it’s an important skill that people subconsciously practice their entire lives. Just as a young person cannot be called an adult until they act like an adult, you cannot have a behavior or trait until you first act like you do.

Be careful not to confuse actions that are habits with actions that are the result of habits. As the tech aphorism goes: acting like Steve Jobs does not make you any more like Steve Jobs, but working like Steve Jobs might.

Create Responsibility and Commit Publicly

Thanks to the social media firehose, this is easier than ever. Publicly commit to your resolution in front of people whose opinion matters to you — people who you’d hate to let down. Find others who will support and reinforce you in your attempts and goals.

Tell yourself that you are responsible for the decision and accountable for having made it, and the social powers of pride (and fear of shame!) will nudge you along.

Self-Reinforcement

Resolutions are made because the habits or goals look hard, and achieving them may be stressful. Whenever you succeed it’s important to reward yourself in your habits

Your rewards should not imitate the stereotypically comical “undo-button” style, such as gorging yourself on ice cream and fried foods after a few days of eating well.

Instead, you should try to think up unrelated awards, such as only watching the next episode of your favorite show after you’ve gone to the gym for the day. Turning this normal pleasure into a reward takes relatively little willpower, (in the worst-case you just don’t watch a show), and allows you to feel good for reinforcing something difficult you wanted to do.

Consider carefully all of the normal, small pleasures that you were going to do anyway that you can delay and schedule around (watching a show, playing a game, shopping, coffee, the beach, etc), and delay them until after you’ve done a resolution task. You will still do all these things, and look forward to them all the more while reinforcing your goals all the while.

Gradualism

Incremental goals are important. Small steps are the least daunting and the easiest to try. Generally, the more you can break down tasks into small chunks, the better off you will be.

A good example that uses both self-reinforcement and gradualism is the time management technique known as pomodoro, in which tasks are structured into short time blocks with planned breaks as rewards.

Find Like-Minded People

Start making acquaintances and hanging out with the sort of people you want to be like. Go to meetups in your area, and talk publicly about any new interests to see if any of your friends might share the same.

Role models are typically only talked about in the context of kids, but they’re important for everyone. Being around like-minded people constantly supplies one with examples that start working at the subconscious level, and provides a sense of normalcy for a lifestyle. Most of all it provides constant reinforcement for role-playing.


That’s it. No magic tricks, just several interconnected techniques to stay mindful of. I hope you find them useful. I’ll leave you with a bit of Longfellow[2]:

We have not wings, we cannot soar;
But we have feet to scale and climb
By slow degrees, by more and more,
The cloudy summits of our time.

The mighty pyramids of stone
That wedge-like cleave the desert airs,
When nearer seen, and better known,
Are but gigantic flights of stairs.

The distant mountains, that uprear
Their solid bastions to the skies,
Are crossed by pathways, that appear
As we to higher levels rise.

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight,
But they, while their companions slept,
Were toiling upward in the night.


[1] Bill Puka, who holds a somewhat rare dual PhD in Philosophy and Psychology from Harvard. He has been a constant source of inspiration and thoughtfulness in my life.

[2] From The Ladder of St. Augustine, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (poet most famous for The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere).

3 thoughts on “How to Change Oneself

  1. ClayF3rguson

    This reminds me of the study that was done a few years ago showing that smiling even when you aren’t happy causes a sort of connectivity electrochemically between those neurons that make your face muscles smile, connected back to the pleasure centers of your brain, and can actually CAUSE you to feel happier. I don’t actually DO that because it’s stupid to, but it’s interesting because it shows the brain can sort of “run in reverse” in a way. Whatever neurons have connected up in the past, can connect up more readily in the future, so to speak.

    Reply

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